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Slovakian junior experiment a smashing success

by Bill Meltzer
Team Slovakia may have finished just shy of winning a medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship, but the tournament results are an encouraging sign not only for the Slovak national junior program but for international hockey as a whole.

Slovakia's fourth-place finish in this year's competition marked its best finish since taking the bronze in 1999.

Slovakia's overachieving roster in Ottawa did not have a player who was drafted by an NHL club. Much has been written about the struggles of Czech hockey in recent years, but their former countrymen have been in an even more desperate situation.

Both countries saw their international fortunes plummet -- especially at the junior level -- due to large-scale migration of their top and mid-level teenage players to North American junior hockey. The difference is that the Slovak program has less depth than its Czech counterpart. As a result, during the course of this decade, Slovakia began to hover closer to relegation than the medal podium.

Slovak junior hockey reached its nadir two years ago at the World Juniors in Sweden. Beaten decisively by Canada, Sweden -- and even Germany -- in the preliminary round, the Slovaks would have been relegated to Division I if the Germans hadn't stumbled against Belarus and Switzerland in the relegation round.  After the close call, Slovak officials decided it was time for bold action.

Last year, Slovakia became the first country to give its national junior team access to play regularly against top adult pros.  The Slovakian Hockey Association admitted the national U20 team to the Slovak Extraliga in order to help the junior team prepare for the World Junior Championships.  Junior-aged players affiliated with the various Slovak Extraliga clubs were combined into a single team, playing a slate of 22 games against Extraliga teams.

While other countries have staged similar experiments, it's always been done on a smaller scale. In Finland, a U20 team has played against second-tier Mestis opponents, while Switzerland has had its juniors play a short slate of matches against National League B teams.

But the Slovaks were the first to put their juniors up against the top senior players in the domestic league, which features a handful of former NHL players and international veterans, including longtime NHL star Zigmund Palffy, who plays for HK 36 Skalica.

The U20 team's games do not count in the Extraliga standings, because winning is not the objective. The purpose is to provide the young players valuable experience and much-needed time to come together as a team. That takes time, and there has been progress during the course of the autumn, even if the on-ice results seem modest to casual observers.

The U20 squad won just one time last year in the slate of games against the Extraliga clubs. This year, the team managed a 5-4 regulation win and a 3-2 shootout victory against MHK Kezmarok (the weakest "regular" team in the league), and surprised HK Nitra, 6-4.

More importantly, coach Stefan Mikes' squad showed improved cohesion and greater leadership from its returning players. The games leading into this year's World Juniors were more competitive than those of a year ago. One of the squad's key returning players, 19-year-old Adam Bezak, played with higher confidence and parlayed it into a solid performance in Ottawa (4 goals, 5 points).

In general, the U20 team played with a lot of emotion and worked hard throughout the tourney.

Meanwhile, the addition of several key players who are spending the 2008-09 season in Canadian junior hockey upgraded the team's skill level enough for the squad to surprise everyone in Ottawa.

Jaroslav Janus (Erie Otters) provided much better goaltending for the Slovaks than either Tomas Hiadlovsky or Julius Hudacek did a year ago. In particular, Janus' magnificent performance against Team USA was the key to Slovakia's shocking 5-3 upset of the Americans in the quarterfinals.

Janus was also strong against Sweden in the semis. In the bronze-medal game, Janus made a crucial breakaway stop against Sergei Andronov to hold his team close, but the Russians scored a backbreaking goal late in the second period and cruised in the third to win, 5-2.

Tomas Tatar, who plays for Slovak Extraliga team HKM Zvolen, was another crucial addition. By far the team's biggest offensive threat, Tatar opened eyes with his 7 goals and 11 points in the tournament.  None were more important than the two goals he scored against Team USA, putting the Slovaks ahead 2-1 in the first period -- a lead the team would never relinquish -- and later adding an empty netter to seal the game.

HC Trinec (Czech Extraliga) forward Richard Panik scored a critical insurance goal against Team USA and added an assist among the two goals and five points he scored in the tournament. Saskatoon Blades forward Milan Kytnar contributed six assists to the Slovak cause and HKM Zvolen defenseman Juraj Valach received a lot of ice time on Mikes' blue line.

The best defenseman on the Slovak squad was 18-year-old Martin Stajnoch, who has been with the U20 team all season. At the WJC, the puck-moving Stajnoch chipped in a goal and three assists. Just as importantly, he was a plus-one at even strength.

Slovakia's success at the 2009 World Junior Championships may provide a model for other teams to play at a level that's greater than the sum of its parts. The participation of the U20 team in the Extraliga has clearly paid dividends in terms of preparation and confidence.

By Mikes' account, the situation in Slovak hockey may continue to improve. He recently said that the younger classes of junior players in Slovakia appear to be superior to some of the recent ones that flirted with relegation.

Just as importantly, the national U20 team has become a viable alternative for young Slovak players who are looking to gain experience and exposure against tougher opposition than they face in the domestic junior leagues.

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